The Beckham effect

David Beckham has a fight on his hands to convince a sceptical USA and take soccer to the next level over the pond, writes Dominic Fifield.

Not since Pele graced the long defunct New York Cosmos in the 1970s has the game across the pond boasted a name this glitzy. Yet, while LA Galaxy rejoice in their coup, the prevailing sense is that the entire domestic league is holding its breath to witness ‘the Beckham effect’ and gauge whether he can change the face of football in the United States.

The former England captain’s image stared out from the front cover of Sports Illustrated, the first British sportsman to claim that honour since Ian Woosman in 1991, with the six-page article including one particular admission of note from the 32-year-old. “This is not a big brand thing,” he said, reflecting the cynicism which greeted confirmation that he was leaving the Bernabeu for league games at venues such as Dallas’ Pizza Hut Park. “It’s about me being the ambassador for MLS. If I can make people more aware and make kids realise that you can go into higher levels and make a great living from playing soccer, that’s what I’m going over there to do.”

Yet, despite the league, in its 12th year, being set to expand from 13 to 16 teams by 2010 and there being 42m Hispanics in the United States, many of whose allegiances lie with soccer rather than more traditional American sports, doubts persist as to whether Beckham’s arrival can truly inspire a lasting interest in the game here and raise it to the next level.

“He is the first big superstar to come to the States and the MLS and I hope to God other players do come,” said the former Italy international Giorgio Chinaglia, who was capped 14 times by his country, featured at the 1974 World Cup finals, moved to the North American Soccer League in 1976 and played alongside Pele at the Cosmos. “But one great player cannot revolutionise the sport. The league has to change its way of thinking.

“They are trying to say Becks is like Pele but I’m just waiting to see what he’s like when he plays. First of all the salary is not $250m (£120m) (over five years). It’s $5.9m for playing and he has deals on the side for so many shirts and other things because soccer in the U.S. at the moment, as far as television is concerned, has no ratings and it’s very difficult to sell merchandise.”

LA Galaxy disagree. “We’re already well over a quarter of a million units (replica shirts) that were ordered, without knowledge of what they were going to look like,” said the club’s general manager, Alexi Lalas, after the unveiling of a new strip, all white and reminiscent of Real Madrid, to tap into Beckham’s arrival.

“MLS has never seen 70,000 people, the Red Bulls in New York average 10,000 at the moment and I don’t think Beckham alone can change all that,” said Chinaglia, who scored 242 goals in his 254 games in the NASL. “If they really paid $250m to recruits, then lots more stars would come but that’s not the real figure. Good stars will only come here when their careers are over. When Pele came here he played just three years but the Cosmos only started getting big crowds after he left when we had Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens, Carlos Alberto and myself.

“We had more than one great player and 16 different nationalities. Chicago have got Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the Mexico international, but you need at least 50 players of that character. Besides, Pele and Maradona could dribble and score goals but David is a great player but doesn’t score many goals, so it won’t be easy for him. He’s almost a special team player, like an American football player. But Galaxy are not a great team and they are struggling.”

The Galaxy may be one of the most successful clubs in the league but they have been on decline since 2006 and languish second bottom of the Western standings at present with only three wins all season. The management staff instigated something of a mid-season reshuffle with Beckham one of a quintet of new faces in Carson City. Yet results will have to improve from now on in. “It’s strange to see so many new faces coming in and to see people leaving too,” said the U.S. international Landon Donovan, the team’s previous star performer. “But we had to do something.

“If we go out there and embarrass ourselves (because) our players are a bunch of individuals who don’t work together, this whole thing goes up in smoke,” said Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy. While Beckham may have set his sights on helping the long-term development of the game in the United States, the short-term, and his ability to transform this club’s slapdash season, is key to whether any of his objectives are met. The Galaxy boast 11,000 season ticket holders for their 27,000 seats and they expect average attendances to edge nearer capacity with Beckham in their ranks. The new arrival has a reputation to justify in the months ahead.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007